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Breathe easy (or not) with the Dust Alert sensor

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September 28, 2009

Dust storms like that seen in Sydney, Australia last week can pose serious health risks th...

Dust storms like that seen in Sydney, Australia last week can pose serious health risks that last long after the event (Photo: katclay via Flickr)

Out of sight might mean out of mind, but it doesn’t necessarily mean out of danger, particularly in the case of small airborne particles. Such particles can severely affect your health, with effects ranging from asthma and bronchitis to lung cancer. If you’re worried about the possible presence of airborne particles in your home researchers at Tel Aviv University (TAU) have developed a sensor called ‘Dust Alert’ that could confirm your suspicions or better yet, set your mind at ease.

Based on a portable chemical analyzer called a spectrophotometer, the Dust Alert measures the concentration of small particles that may contaminate the air in a home or office. It is placed in the desired location for three weeks and then provides real-time contamination levels in terms of dust, pollen and toxins. The Dust Alert can be installed and begin to provide data within minutes, but the researchers say several weeks of samples are needed to provide the best assessment of air quality.

Functioning like a tiny chemistry lab, the device can precisely determine the chemical composition of the toxins, so steps can be taken to improve the air quality. The ultimate aim is to provide real-time levels of contamination, enabling the Dust Alert to indicate whether there is a problem and help find a quick remedy. The solution might be as simple as opening a window, the effects of which can be seen immediately.

It’s developers say that while the Dust Alert could be useful for prospective homeowners who have an allergy, it would be most useful in the aftermath of disasters, such as chemical fires, heavy dust storms, hurricanes or tragedies like 9/11. Survivors of these situations are usually unaware of the lingering environmental problems because no accurate tools exist to define the risk. Using a Dust Alert, residents could be advised to vacate their homes and offices until the dust has cleared, or to take simple precautions such as aerating hazardous rooms in a flat, suggests Dust Alert’s developer, Prof. Ben-Dor of TAU's Department of Geography.

According to Prof. Ben-Dor the Dust Alert could also be used by cities and counties to develop "dust maps" that provide detailed environmental information about streets and neighborhoods, permitting government authorities like the EPA to more successfully identify and prosecute offenders. Currently, for example, there is no system for demonstrating how construction sites compromise people's health.

With their dust maps, TAU scientists have already correlated urban heat islands with high levels of particulate matter, giving urban planners crucial information for the development of green spaces and city parks. Prof. Ben-Dor also plans to develop his prototype into a home-and-office unit, while offering customized services that can help people decode what's left in the dust.

“We can see the dust on the furniture and on the windows, but most of us can't see the dust we breathe. For the first time, we are able to detect it and measure its more dangerous components,” says Prof. Ben-Dor.

About the Author
Darren Quick Darren's love of technology started in primary school with a Nintendo Game & Watch Donkey Kong (still functioning) and a Commodore VIC 20 computer (not still functioning). In high school he upgraded to a 286 PC, and he's been following Moore's law ever since. This love of technology continued through a number of university courses and crappy jobs until 2008, when his interests found a home at Gizmag.   All articles by Darren Quick
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